There has been much controversy recently about the carrying of non-pyrotechnical flares on sailing boats, otherwise known as Electronic Visual Distress Signal Devices (EVDSD). In June 2013 Britain's Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) put out a statement which eloquently put the current status, but is that the whole story?: To be effective, distress signals must be internationally recognised and whilst acknowledging the potential benefits of EVDS the MCA considers that a change would be needed to Annex IV of the COLREGS to permit these devices full recognition as distress signals.
Work has commenced in this area, the US Coast Guard for example has commissioned the international standards organisation, Radio Technical Commission for Maritime Services (RTCM), to research the effectiveness of EVDS. The MCA positively supports this initiative, through monitoring progress, contributing views, and supporting this work in the appropriate international fora. The ultimate aim is to work towards recognition of these devices, if they are shown to be fit for purpose, by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and a subsequent change to COLREGS Annex IV regulations.
This naturally does not limit their carriage as an additional safety device. Manufacturers of such devices maintain that there are advantages to the electronic versions over traditional pyrotechnic equipment.
Jim O’Meara of Washington-based North American Survival Systems
is adamant that the EVDSDs have additional benefits.
O'Meara claims that they have a unique ability to locate and recover, beyond currently accepted pyrotechnic flares. 'The current pyrotechnic 'distress signal requirements' are inherently flawed as their short signal duration lacks adequate LOCATE capabilities,' he says. 'However, EVDSDs are designed to provide the vital LOCATE segment of a distress signal as shown in the USCG published test results of commercial EVDSD products in CG-D-06-12. Page 20 and Page G5 of this report charts commercial EVDSDs performance and limitations for the uninformed.
'Informed mariners know having EVDSD products onboard reduces the risk of potentially fatal consequences and will result in safer lives, safer ships, and cleaner seas.'
However, the bottom line is that, while government agencies continue to investigate, any world-wide distress system needs to be internationally recognised, and until that happens, pyrotechnic flares are still the mandatory equipment to have on board our sailing boats. EVDSD products may be high intensity, floating, clean and very safe, and have some abilities beyond pyro-technic flares, but they are not yet recognised, and must be carried, for their excellent qualities, as extras, not substitutes. Background
The international regulations for the Prevention of Collisions at Sea (COLREGS) apply to all vessels at sea and by special application to vessels on inland waters. Annex IV of these regulations sets out the signals used to indicate if a vessel is in distress and in need of immediate assistance. The equipment needed to make some of these signals (e.g. pyrotechnics) is required to be carried on all seagoing commercial vessels, and most non–seagoing commercial vessels. They are also required to be carried on all pleasure vessels of 13.7 metres in length and over. The Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Convention describes the standards that distress equipment must meet and whilst not mandatory for all pleasure vessels it follows that to avoid confusion similar standards need to be adopted. Advice for Mariners
Where the carriage of flares is mandatory, hand-held distress flares must meet the requirements of the Marine Equipment Directive which incorporates European and IMO requirements. None of the EVDS on the market that we are aware of, currently meet the light intensity required by the IMO Life Saving Appliance Code and as such do not conform to the Directive. This means that they cannot be carried as a substitute for pyrotechnic flares on
vessels to which mandatory carriage applies.
Where carriage of flares is non–mandatory and due to the possibility that EVDS may not be recognised internationally as a distress signal, the MCA advises that EVDS, for the time being, should not be carried as a substitute for conventional pyrotechnic flares. However, for all pleasure vessels, seagoing commercial vessels, and most non–seagoing commercial vessels EVDS may be carried and used as a locating device, though their limitations should be
recognised and all parties involved made aware of the type of signal being generated.
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